Monday, 3 October 2011

All for the want of a horseshoe nail

Bonk. Bonk-bonk. Noise of me hitting my head against that metaphorical brick wall, again. I'm trying to explain to myself, the better to explain to others - and isn't this kind of exploration or investigation what all creative writing is about, at some level? - what happens when the country's leading commissioner of short stories decides to cut back, to treat them as unimportant in the grander scheme of things. Since BBC R4's Controller doesn't see it, how can one make it apparent to her - and to others? Others who should be taking notice, making noise, caring and fighting to hang on to all kinds of opportunities to nurture the arts, not only their own particular brand..?

What came to mind today was the old proverb: "All for the want of a horseshoe nail." You will probably remember the basic premise. My own - rather clunky - version goes like this:

for want of a good story, the skilled actor is lost
for want of an actor, the brilliant new play is lost
for want of the play, the outstanding novel is lost
for want of the novel, the award-winning film is lost
for want of a film, the acclaimed national culture is lost
and all for the want of a good story.

That sounds grandiose, of course, but consider the examples in almost every interview you read with a novelist, a playwright, an actor about their journey to success. How did they start writing? What text did they use for their first theatre audition? Where did they learn the skills they brought to their now much admired performance? If you look through the petition, you'll find again and again the comment from actors & writers (many of whose names are now 'household' ones) how they began in the small spaces offered by BBC radio drama, and not least by writing or reading the R4 short story.

here are a few quotes which underline this point:

Iain Pattison  "This [cut] denies countless talented writers a prestigious national platform for their work. The BBC is supposed to be a champion of new talent. Please abandon this shortsighted and mean spirited cut." 

 Ian Hogg "As an actor who has read a good number of short stories and novels for Radio Four I'd like to say how depressing such news is. The number of listeners who have stopped me to talk of their pleasure in listening to radio drama and story readings should be a matter of pride to the BBC ; it certainly is to me. The single reader telling a story can hold an audience of a hundred or so people rapt and spell bound. I know this from personal experience of reading aloud to varied audiences. The radio story is a deep and moving experience which people young and old value. It would be churlish, arrogant and insensitive of the BBC executive to mutilate this powerful and beautiful creature - it makes me think of Aztec priests tearing the hearts out of helpless victims. And they must have thought this was right and honourable behaviour! Melodramatic imagery I agree but insanity is nearly always melodramatic. So shame on you Radio Four." 

Daragh Carville "The first piece I ever had broadcast was a BBC Radio 4 short story, back in 1990 or thereabouts, when I was in my early twenties. Hearing my work on the radio was a key moment for me, spurring me on to make a career as a writer. And I'm not the only one. The short story slot on Radio 4 has been a lifeline for writers, actors and listeners and has helped refresh and reinvigorate the short story form. I urge you to think again about reducing the short story output on the channel." 

Juliet Stevenson "Has there been any consultation with Radio 4 audiences before making this proposed cut? I receive more positive and enthusiastic feedback from reading short stories and books on radio than I do for work in any other medium, by a long margin. The short story is a form dearly loved by listeners, and cherished by writers both established and emerging."  

David Benedictus "I have had a dozen or so short stories broadcast on radio 4 and they were a huge help to me. But more important is that when I am teaching I tell my students that this is one of the best possibole slots for their short stories - but then of course where else are they to go? Both for writers and, even more important for listeners, Radio 4 has an obligation not to reduce further these precious quarter hours. They are not expensive, and if public service means anything it means nurturing the short story. They must be retained at present levels or even returned to one a weekday; and they should be promoted as they deserve to be."

David Rudkin "My career began with a short story I had written at the age of 12, and which I read myself on BBC Midlands Region as it then was. Mine has since been a lifetime's work as an award-winning dramatist (theatre and radio), screenwriter, translator and librettist. In my old age I am now returning to the private form, short story, with which I began. The notion of 'one short story a week' is a culturally impoverished notion, and will in turn impoverish your audience. Do please reflect, and re-think." 

Julia Blackburn "During the last few years I have written almost 20 short stories for radio 4 . The process has taught me a great deal ,maybe because a good radio story needs to have a quality of immediacy and intimacy to it and that has helped to clarify my own writing style. i have always read my own stories, which is a bonus of communication for such an otherwise silent profession. I receive letters from people about my books, but the response to broadcasts has been much more immediate - someone having listened while stuck in a traffic jam, a man who said my story made it possible for him to think about things he had never before been able to look at. i am sure this comes from the fact of the directness of a spoken voice... I was shocked when I learnt that the story slot had been cut to three a week, a further cut and such a major one, would be a disaster."

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